Spending time up close and personal with a pre-war or mid-century British roadster will really challenge your modern notions of what is and is not considered a “sports car.” In today’s era of overboosted four-cylinders regularly breaking the 300-horsepower mark, SUVs with twin-turbo V-8s and a ‘Ring time quicker than an early 2000s Porsche, and supercars that regularly post figures above 800 hp, it’s easy to forget little sub-100 hp roadsters. But models like the MG TC, Riley RM, and Austin 7 two-seaters literally wrote the definition of what a sports car should be, especially when they engaged in off-road Trials of the period.
Indeed, it’s even wilder to imagine the sights and sounds of the local track day when these cars were brand new in the 1920s and 1930s. With 0-60-mph times that stretched well into the 20-second range (or never), it must have been a hoot to watch aggressive driving that nowadays might seem like moving in slow motion.
Well, when we say “track day,” we really mean a series of dedicated hillclimb facilities spread through the British countryside. Before the conclusion of the war provided a series of disused airfields, a timed sprint up a closed country lane was the closest thing a good portion of enthusiasts got to Brooklands. Or, in many cases, intrepid drivers would subject their little cars to mud, rocks, and rutted farmland in the pursuit of competition in the form of off-road Trials.
These Trials are likely the coolest form of vintage motorsport you’ve never heard of. At each Trial—so-called as many manufacturers used them as proving grounds for new cars—a gaggle of gearheads rolled up to some farmland in their sports cars, cabriolets, and saloons, and charged up those slick, treacherous paths as quickly as their 20-or-so horsepower could manage.
According to U.K.-based Vintage Sports Car Club, which presides as the official sanctioning body behind today’s version of the Trials, competitors attempt to drive up a number of hills classified as “sections” and are given a point value based on how far they are able to climb before stalling or getting stuck. It’s not just rocks and deep mud drivers have to plan for; many of these sections include stop-and-start checkpoints where starting traction is often a struggle.
On the topic of traction, many drivers bring along passengers called “bouncers” to act as active ballast. It’s as amazing as it sounds; in an event of low traction or risk of stalling, the passengers will literally hop up and down in their seat to help the rear wheels dig in a bit more. It’s very fun to watch, and probably more fun to participate.
To call attention to this pastime that is virtually unknown here in the U.S., we dug up some vintage in-period off-road Trials photography for your perusal. And if you want to see and learn more about modern-day trials—featuring the same ancient sports cars—head over to VSCC here.